It was not a good night for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and free trade during the first presidential debate.
Trump stayed on message during the first 30 minutes of the debate, arguing trade was the root of the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. and that China was a currency manipulator taking away U.S. jobs. “We have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us and our companies leaving the U.S. and firing their people,” said Trump. He argued for penalties against companies moving business offshore, restructuring the tax system to bring money abroad home and cutting taxes on small business.
Clinton also made her trade case, arguing for better deals generally and keeping talk focused on her overall economic agenda. “Trade an important issue … and we need to have smart, fair trade deals. We also though have to have a tax system that rewards work and not just a financial transactions,” said Clinton. She also outlined her fundamental requirements for any trade agreement: “Will they create jobs in America? Will they raise incomes in America? And are they good for our national security?”
She argued against “trickle-down” tax cuts, instead focusing on closing corporate tax loopholes, supporting families with sick leave and better wages, and focusing on higher-tech manufacturing.
In one of the strongest moments of the night for Trump, who fared less successfully on foreign policy and cyber security issues, he called out Clinton’s initial support of the TPP. Clinton did backtrack on her support of the deal (she previously talked about it as the “gold standard” of agreements in her book “Hard Choices”) during her primary challenge from Bernie Sanders. It’s been a big issue for her on the campaign but also a bright spot for supporters, who think she might be more willing to accept the deal with some modifications.
Matt Priest, president of the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, said he saw more of a silver lining for trade policy under Clinton, but felt like leadership generally was lacking on the issue. “I think ultimately the facts lost out when it came to trade,” he said. “Trade is something the two candidates have supported and utilized in the past, but they’re playing to a narrative for a minority of voters.”
Since the primaries, Trump has won support using a tough approach to trade to appeal to the Rust Belt and heavy manufacturing states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which have traditionally been Democratic strongholds.
“Both candidates came out swinging to criticize U.S. trade policy. That’s a shame,” said Stephen Lamar, EVP at the American Apparel and Footwear Association. “They need to understand that all Americans depend on trade — whether they are hardworking American families who are consumers of imports, or American workers in footwear firms who depend on global suppliers and global customers. Keeping the U.S. engaged in trade agreements and global markets makes us smart.”
Priest said it was a bit frustrating to see two candidates, who are talking tough on China, aren’t supporting a deal that would pivot the U.S. focus and strength in the Asia Pacific. “It doesn’t line up, because if you’re trying to box out China, then why wouldn’t you support TPP?” he said.